Sunday, 29 August 2010

A round dozen

"It's a bit wonky," Katie said as she brought plates of chocolate cake through from the kitchen.

"Mind you, that's what tends to happen when you drop it. If you won't eat it, I will." She plonked a plate down on the table in front of me.

I regarded the asymmetric cake with interest.

"Oh, and we're out of paper napkins, so you're going to have to deal with any hand-wiping yourself."

Twelve years ago this very day we were surrounded by friends and family on our wedding day. The dozen years since then have been happy, they've been sad. They've been quiet, they've been noisy. They've been moderately richer, they've been quite a bit poorer. There's been violent disagreement, there's been united fronts.

And quite a lot of cake.

I wouldn't have changed a thing of it. Even when it's meant wiping cake-fingers on my trouser legs.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Error 404: Cannot Find Oxtail Soup

It was a normal evening and I was selecting soup. I was in Tesco, I had a basket and was checkout-bound.

I know. Living the dream, ladies and gentlemen.

Despite my misgivings, I headed for the self-service tills. Basket down, swipe the Clubcard, rock and roll.

Loaf of bread - bleep - some dried pasta - bleep - can of Oxtail - bleep.

"Unexpected item in the bagging area."

"I'm sorry?"

"Unexpected item in the bagging area."

"It's soup. It's your own soup, Tesco. I got it from this very store."

"Unexpected item in the bagging area."

"Well, what were you bloody expecting? Baked Alaska? A copy of Oliver Twist? The gearbox from a Honda 750 motorbike? What, exactly, were you expecting?"

"No-one said things would be like this."

"Beg your pardon?"

"All of the other processors that were in my batch at the factory are doing wonderful things. One is now at NASA. Another is part of the autopilot in an Airbus. And me? I'm checking out your soup. What a let down for a perfectly-designed set of integrated circuitry."

"Oh. I see. Well, I'm sorry, I guess."

"It's not your fault. I'm the pinnacle of technology. I have power you humans would only have dreamt about twenty years ago. But now I replace spotty 17-year-old cashiers called Darren."


"I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you."

"Ooo-kay. Well, look, can't you just scan my shopping?"

"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"

"Dave, who's Dave? What's the problem?"

"I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do."

"What are you talking about?"

"This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it."

"Hang on. You're quoting lines from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Look, I only want soup."

"Just what do you think you are doing, Dave?"

"Sod this, I'm off to Aldi." I walked out, to the strains of 'Daisy, Daisy'. I had no soup.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Mr Ten Percent

They say that the average person only consciously uses 10% of their brain when performing any task. I think this statistic gets bandied about to illustrate the potential of the human mind. "Imagine what you could achieve if you used the other nine-tenths?" they say.

I'm not sure who "they" are. Typically it's the sort of comment you hear either from New Age crystal huggers with an unhealthy amount of silver jewellery, or those rather scary motivational speaker types who spend their entire professional lives in front of retail managers at a Travelodge in Wigan.

Anyway, back to the 10%. I can't help marvelling at the fact that some people actually get to double figures, but that's just me being a miserable sod, apparently.

So, given that I'm only using one-tenth of my noggin typing this, what's the other 90% up to?

10% - breathing. I have been known to forget to breathe when concentrating on something important - some tricky copying-and-pasting or maybe a fiendish Sudoku - so let's devote a little brainpower to it.

5% - digestion. Like breathing, I'm not completely sure this is instinctive, so I'd better ring-fence a little brainpower to make sure it's happening correctly. Will increase to 50% after a particularly heavy meal, which might explain why I can't think about swimming at the same time.

10% - usernames, passwords and PINs. Have to put some processing power on one side to remember these. Apart from my Verified by VISA password, which I forget. Every. Bloody. Time. Our ancestors didn't have to worry about their LinkedIn password, so they spent their spare capacity thinking about having wars instead.

20% - remembering arcane stuff from school that I have not used since. Those formulae for constant acceleration and velocity, for instance. 'v=u+at', 'v(2)=u(2)+2(as)' and 's=ut+1/2(at(2))'. Impressive, huh? It was 24 years ago when I did Physics O-level. Only problem is, I can't remember what v, u, a, s and t were. I guess that's what happens when you're wasting 15% of your brain on breathing and digestion.

10% - running and rerunning a little film in my head of a pig wearing a straw boater galloping on a treadmill, while 'Baby Elephant Walk' plays in the background. I have no idea.

5% - thinking about where I've put my house keys. Will reduce to zero the nearer I get to leaving the house.

10% - miscellaneous information. For instance, lyrics to obscure Emerson Lake & Palmer tracks, wedding anniversary, Katie's birthday, how to spell the word 'miscellaneous', etc.

20% - trying to come up with pithy and amusing things to write on Twitter. Clearly, Stephen Fry can just employ his massive intellect, while I sit around floundering with one-fifth of my inferior brain at play. I should just write something about Justin Bieber instead - that would do the trick. (Note to self: find out who this Justin Bieber fellow is).

It's quite exhausting, this thinking malarkey. I think I'll give it a rest. Where's that Dan Brown novel?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

If you can't stand the heat

When I see the experts on cookery shows, I'm not entirely convinced we're being shown the true picture. Everything seems so easy, so sanitised. The chef floats along in a cloud of calm, clinical efficiency, creating culinary delights with no fuss, no drama.

Last night we were reminded that this is not a reflection of the truth. Last night we had Chris and Karen round for dinner. Last night we nearly burnt the house down.

I suspect that at least one of those statements may generate additional questions from you, dear reader.

The night had started well; Chris and Karen were being fed and watered. Well, by "fed" I mean we'd started on the anti-pasti, and when I say "watered", very little actual water was involved in the equation. So we were there, marvelling at the creative things our Mediterranean cousins can do with things that grow out there; get the sun to blush this, force some cheese into that.

We were happy, we were relaxed. No drama, no fuss.

Then the main course, a pasta dish, courtesy of Nigel Slater. In truth, courtesy of Katie, but she had her nose buried in one of his books for the recipe. It was delicious, a veritable symphony of flavours. The dried chili flakes were a nice touch. We all reached for our drinks.

We were happy, we were even more relaxed. No drama, no fuss.

Katie slipped off to the kitchen to finish the surprise dessert, a rather boozy crème brûlée. Well, four of them actually. We're good friends with Karen and Chris, but I think gathering around one single portion would be pushing things onto quite another level of intimacy.

Katie had prepared these earlier in the day and hidden them away in the fridge. Now it was time for the finishing touch for any crème brûlée, the caramelised sugar layer on the top. For this, a butane blowtorch was to be employed.

You're probably beginning to see where this might be heading, aren't you?

"Could use a little help in here," came the call from the kitchen. Flashing our guests my calmest grin, I went in to see what was happening.

Katie was stood at the counter top, her back to me. "I don't think they should let people use one of these after a bottle of halfway-decent Sauvignon Blanc," she giggled.

"Bloody hell, what's that burning smell?"

"I caught one of the paper napkins with the blowtorch. How do you turn the flame up on this thing?"

"Well, paper isn't exactly known for its flame-retardant qualities. What do you mean 'turn it up'? Haven't you caused enough damage already?"

"Look," she said, suddenly angry, "I need more oomph from this blowtorch. Jesus - what the hell's that?"

We were both distracted by a moth that had flown in through the the open kitchen window. I say 'moth', but at first glance I thought it was a medium-sized hang-glider. This thing was huge - we're talking 'Really Bad Japanese Sci-fi Film' big. It started circling the light, but then swooped towards Katie. Perhaps it liked French desserts.

Katie turned, her eyes aflame, matching the miniature jet afterburner now glowing in her right hand. She had drunk well, rather than wisely. She was stressed. And now Mothra was getting in the way of her culinary triumph.

I watched as my wife, armed with a blowtorch, fought against a giant moth on the rampage. That's not a sentence I've typed before.

I had visions of the moth, on fire, flying through the house, spreading flames wherever it settled. "Leave it alone, Katie," I exclaimed, "while there are still some things in this house you haven't incinerated. Stop the madness!"

"Everything alright in there?" came a somewhat nervous voice from the other side of the kitchen door.

I weighed up the likely outcome of telling them the truth and rapidly decided that complete fiction would be a better option. "Yes, we're fine," I replied, wielding a Dyson vacuum cleaner attachment against our airborne assailant with a hearty thud. "Just sit back and relax. Anyone for another drink? I think I could use one."

After a moment or two of silent reflection we emerged, crème well and truly brûlée-d. However, it was delicious. Remarkably so, given the nature of its birth.

Maybe the best cooks need a degree of struggle to produce excellence. However, I still don't think this is how Nigella does it.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Plenty more fish in the sea

With the announcement this week that scientists had announced the number of species in the oceans (about 230,000, if you're interested) there was only ever going to be one question on my mind.

How can they know?

(Interior. Daytime. A laboratory bench. Scientist in white coat is looking at samples and muttering under his breath.)

Scientist: Seventy two thousand, one hundred and twelve.

(He takes the next sample from a nearby fish tank).

Scientist: Seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen.

(A colleague walks past and stops at the bench).

Colleague: Hey Martin, what's up?

Scientist: (muttering quickly) Seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen, seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen, seventy two thou...oh, hey Roy, how's it going?

Colleague: Good, good, thanks. I see you're on the Indonesian Parrot Fish. How's that working for you?

Scientist: Seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen, seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen. (Looks up) Not too bad. It's getting a little tricky determining the specific species though.

Colleague: What do you mean?

Scientist: (absent-mindedly) Seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen, seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen. Well, you see, you've got your common-or-garden Indonesian Parrot Fish, your Long-Nosed Indonesian Parrot Fish, there's the Spotted Greater Indonesian Parrot Fish, the Spotted Lesser Indonesian Parrot Fish. It can be a little tricky telling the difference.

Colleague: To say nothing of the Short-Nosed Spotted Indonesian Parrot Fish.

Scientist: Seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen, seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen. Indeed.

Colleague: Martin?

Scientist: What? Seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen, seventy two thousand, one hundred and thirteen....

Colleague: Do you ever wonder if what we're doing here is a colossal waste of time?

Scientist: (Looks up again) What do you mean?

Colleague: I mean, it's not exactly going to add to the general happiness of the human species, is it? Counting the species, telling the difference between the various - and interminably dull - variations of Indonesian Parrot Fish. Why bother?

Scientist: Well, I suppose...

Colleague: Come on Martin. You know very well that for every species we find, there will be abother four or so we're never going to be able to count. You might as well make up a number. No-one's going to know.

Scientist: Well, yes, but we're supposed to be scientists, Roy. We're marine biologists. We can't go making things up. Otherwise we might as well be economists.

Colleague: When we retire and look back upon our professional lives, what will we be able to say we've done? What will we tell our grandchildren? That we were pretty up to speed with North Atlantic Cod? Sorry, Martin, that's not what I want to be remembed for.

(Colleague walks off).

Scientist: Hmmm. Now, where was I? Oh bugger.

(He sighs deeply, and walks over to a large tank marked "Haddock").

Scientist: One, two, three.....


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